Odysseys come in all shapes and forms, from epic to personal. Three recent odysseys range in time and theme from ancient to dystopian. Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey launches from Homer’s epic, 2017 National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing road trips to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and Jesús Carrasco’s Out in the Open follows a young boy’s harrowing escape from abuse across an unnamed landscape. No matter their geography, these books share exceptional writing, mining vast expanses of the human experience.
Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is, unsurprisingly, a roadmap to Homer’s Odyssey (which, incidentally, has just received a new translation by Emily Wilson). It introduces relevant scholarship and translations, discusses how the epic shaped the Western canon, sprinkles in choice etymology as well as descriptions of Mendelsohn’s Classics training, and provides a multitude of other, arresting details.
And yet. An Odyssey is really a braided memoir woven with three strands: the semester that Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay, asked to audit Daniel’s Odyssey class at Bard, a subsequent cruise by father and son that retraced the Homeric voyage, and the roadmap of The Odyssey. Jay Mendelsohn died shortly thereafter, framing not only his fatherhood and his life, but also An Odyssey.
The memoir’s architecture is remarkable. Its structure presented Mendelsohn with a difficult challenge that he discussed in a recent interview with The Millions. Mendelsohn chose to echo Homer’s “ring composition,” in which the narrator begins the story, then pauses and loops back to some earlier moment
… a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment … that will help account for that slightly less early moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.
Mendelsohn loops back to early memories of his father and gradually fills in a man of fierce discipline and determination. Dad was a passionate reader and do-it-your-selfer; the more difficult and unpleasant something was for him, “the more likely it was to possess…the hallmark of worthiness.”
Mendelsohn takes us from beginnings to endings. In Dad’s first class, Daniel unfolds the “Homeric Question,” an ancient debate about how Homer’s epics came into being. There was no single Homer, rather—
… the bards who performed the epics, itinerant singer-performers … at once reproduced material that earlier poets had composed while refining it and adding new material of their own…
The epic’s opening reflects that oral tradition—“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twist and turns/driven time and again off course….” [Robert Fagles translation].
Initially, Daniel cringes at having his father in his classroom. Proclamations from Jay—Odysseus is no hero because “he’s a liar and he cheated on his wife!”—call into question the wisdom of trying to teach Dad. But the memoir gradually evolves into an interrogation of the Mendelsohn father-son dynamic. Mendelsohn the son travels a road of discovery that is a crescendo of revelations about his father. Daniel unearths secrets and inconsistencies that cause him to rewrite not only the received wisdom from Jay, but his own self-concept; just as much of Homer’s The Odyssey is “devoted to father-son relationships….”
“Who really knows his own begetting?” Telemachus [Odysseus’ son] bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed? Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.
Mendelsohn’s readers journey with Odysseus down to ghost-filled Hades and back up to the end of Homer’s poem, where Mendelsohn notices Homer’s continued ”preoccupation with the rites of burial.” In The Odyssey’s final book, Homer summons Hades again, recounting a conversation between the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon.
It is hard not to feel, in this final book of the poem, that in its repeated climactic references to tombs and burials… [that] the Odyssey is “burying” the Iliad…
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s most recent novel, is another kind of ghost-riddled odyssey, written in prose as lyrical and expressive as a bard’s singing. Jojo, who anchors the book, is the son of a black mother, Leonie, and a white father, Michael, imprisoned upstate. Jojo lives with his black grandparents—Mam, who is dying, and Pop, who serves as Jojo’s guiding light. Leonie comes and goes, in thrall to addiction and to her longing for Michael. At 13, Jojo takes responsibility for his toddler sister, Kayla (named Michaela for her absent father), and struggles to become a man.
I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years….
The voyage in Ward’s novel is the trip to pick up Michael, set for release from the Mississippi State Penitentiary—Parchman—where Pop did time decades ago. Along the way, Leonie stops to buy gas—but doesn’t provide Jojo with enough money to buy food for him and Kayla—and at a sinister house to pick up Misty and Leonie’s next fix. There, Jojo steals a pack of saltines and two bottles of juice—
I open my stolen bottle and drink the juice down, then pour half the other bottle into Kayla’s sippy cup. I hand one cracker to Kayla and slide one into my mouth. We eat like that: one for me and one for her…. Neither of the women in the front seat pay us an attention.
It’s not hunger, or heat, or Kayla’s vomiting on Jojo, or Leonie and Misty getting high, or the blinding, torrential rain during the car trip. It’s absence—Leonie’s from her children—as well as the ghosts of the dead—family and others—that thread this trip with adversity. In a version of ring composition, Ward loops the dead in with the living, entangling brothers with sisters, fathers with sons. As the car pushes on, Ward fills in hellish, heartbreaking details from the family’s past, details that are also congruent with our nation’s past.
There’s the ghost of Given, Leonie’s murdered brother, who haunts Leonie when she’s high. There’s Richie, a dead boy, with whom Jojo is acquainted from hearing Pop’s Parchman stories—
Richie wasn’t built for work. He wasn’t built for nothing, really, on account he was so young. He ain’t know how to work a hoe, didn’t have enough years in his arms for muscle…
The four riders—Leonie, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla—arrive at Parchman, reunite with Michael and begin the return trip. It turns out they’ve picked up Richie’s ghost as well—visible only to Jojo. Richie recites vivid memories of Jojo’s absent, dead father, River, whom Richie loved. Richie knows Jojo is River’s son—
… by the way he holds the little sick golden girl [Kayla]: as if he thinks he could curl around her, make his skeleton and flesh into a building to protect her from the adults, from the great reach of the sky, the vast expanse of the grass-ridden earth, shallow with graves.
I want to tell the boy in the car this. Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again….
But I don’t tell the boy any of that. I settle in the crumpled bits of paper and plastic that litter the bottom of the car.
The return trip is as emotionally harrowing as the trip to Parchman. Michael has no interest in Jojo, and Leonie’s primary interest is in Michael. Not until Leonie is stopped for “swerving,” and a cop handcuffs Leonie and points a gun to Jojo’s head does Leonie realize—
It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer. It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of this belly, and think he’s grown. But he’s just a baby.
If the unburied are buried by the conclusion of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, it is in hearing their stories told, where dogs are not like Odysseus’s faithful old dog, Argos (who recognizes Odysseus after a 20-year absence, then dies in peace), but instead are vicious killers; where Mam’s agonizing death from cancer is less painful than the violence inflicted on her family members. Where Jojo grows up, caring and grounded, without a mother or a father, because his grandfather loves and mentors him.
Jesús Carrasco’s debut novel, Out in the Open (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) presents a third odyssey. An unnamed boy flees an unnamed village through a dry, merciless landscape that feels like Carrasco’s native Badajoz, Spain.
From inside his hole in the ground, [the boy] heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove….Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that forced him to flee.
The boy is escaping the village bailiff’s sexual abuse, suborned by his father who himself uses a leather belt—
Afterward, the only witnesses would be the thick stone walls that supported the roof that kept the rooms cool. A communal prelude to his father’s worn leather belt. The swift copper-colored buckle slashing dully through the fetid kitchen air.
Hiding and moving only at night, the boy soon runs out of food and drink. He spots an old goatherd who, with basic human decency and limited language, teaches the boy how to survive “out in the open.” The deepening relationship between boy and man is built with deceptively simple encounters among the goats. Over time, the boy ends up caring for the failing old man.
They woke before dawn and set off along the towpath. The old man riding the donkey, his head drooping, and the boy leading the way, with a stick in one hand and the halter in the other.
Part dystopian allegory, part primer on the power of humanity, Out in the Open’s meticulous attention to detail affirms that a child damaged by trauma can forge a path forward with the right kind of mentor.
“Mentor,” Mendelsohn tells us, was what Athena named a so-called friend of Odysseus whom she conjures to provide Telemachus with “an experienced and trusted adviser.” In giving the boy a substitute for his absent father, Athena connects him not only to Odysseus, but also to “all his ancestors, male and female.” Jojo, too, has a mentor in the steady guiding presence of his grandfather, connecting Jojo across generations.
The word mentor stems from the Greek word menos, usually translated as “heroic strength.” “But really,” says Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy, “menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength…a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.” And thus, Out in the Open’s old goatherd centers the fleeing boy so that he can free himself from his abusers.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.